BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 152 (April-June 1995): 163-81

         Copyright © 1995 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    

 

                  "THE LORD WATCHES

             OVER YOU": A PILGRIMAGE

                 READING OF PSALM 121

 

                                                                       David G. Barker

 

From ancient times to the modern era, life with God

has been viewed as a pilgrimage. Songs, stories, and poems regu-

larly speak about the trust, courage, and vigilance needed in that

pilgrimage.1

One of the most exquisite of such songs is Psalm 121. As a

psalm of trust, it counsels God's people to trust quietly in Him in

all the vicissitudes of life. Through its careful artistry of an-

tiphonal voices, and its movement through question, affirmation,

and blessing, this psalm speaks of God who is both transcendent

Creator and Keeper of the nation as well as imminent Watcher of

each of His people. The result is that pilgrims of faith can receive

strength and courage in the journey through an alien and hostile

world to their destination in Zion.2

 

                                         A TRANSLATION

 

1     A Song of Ascents

 

        I lift up my eyes to the mountains.

              From where does my help come?

2      My help comes from Yahweh,

              Maker of heaven and earth.

 

 

David G. Barker is Professor of Old Testament, Heritage Theological Seminary,

London, Ontario.

 

1   Of course the classic in Christian literature is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's

Progress.

2   Cf. Hebrews 12:22-24.



164   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995

 

3     He will not allow your foot to slip,

               Your Keeper will not slumber.

4     Indeed, He will never slumber,

               He will never sleep, the Keeper of Israel.

 

5     Yahweh is your Keeper,

               Yahweh is your shade on your right hand.

6     By day the sun will not harm you,

               Or the moon by night.

 

7     Yahweh will keep you from all harm,

               He will keep your life.

8     Yahweh will keep your going and your coming,

               From now until forever.

 

                         BACKGROUND AND SETTING

SONGS OF PILGRIMAGE

 

The title of Psalm 121 reads tOlfEma.la rywi--"a song of ascents"

(NIV). The psalm is the second in a collection of 15 psalms with es-

sentially the same title.3  Historically, this title has created a

plethora of interpretations and approaches to this collection of

psalms,4 but recent scholarship has come to a general consensus

that the title points to songs of pilgrimage.5 According to this in-

terpretation, these psalms, among others, were sung in the context

of the great pilgrimage feasts in which the nation was called to

Jerusalem three times a year.6 The term hlAfA is apparently related

to the pilgrim's ascent of Mount Zion to Jerusalem for worship.

However, it may also reflect the processional ascents to the temple

by the pilgrims themselves in the final stage of their pilgrimage,

or by the processional choirs who led the gathered pilgrims in

worship and celebration (cf. 2 Sam. 6:12; 1 Kings 13:33; 2 Kings

23:2; Neh. 12:37; Ps. 42:4; Isa. 26:2; 30:29; Jer. 31:6; Mic. 4:2).7

 

3   The title of Psalm 121 differs slightly from the other 14 in that it has the prepo-

sition l; before tOlfEma.ha. This seems to be more stylistic than anything, since l; can be

used as a circumlocution for the expression of the genitive (E. Kautsch and A. E.

Cowley, eds., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar [Oxford: Clarendon, 19101, 419-20, par.

129a-h). Leslie C. Allen suggests that this was the original title for the entire col-

lection (Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word, 1983], 219).

4   For a survey of such interpretations, see the presentation in C. C. Keet, A Study

of the Psalms of Ascents (London: Mitre, 1969), 1-17.

5   Cf. A. Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Old Testament Library

(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 745.

6   These feasts were the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the spring, the Feast of

Weeks in the early summer, and the Feast of Ingathering (or Tabernacles) in the

fall (Exod. 23:14-17; Isa. 30:29).

7   Allen, Psalms 101-150, 219-20.



                        "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121     165

 

Also these songs are likely to have been among those sung by the

returning exiles from Babylon as they ascended the mountains to

Jerusalem and home (Ezra 2:1; 7:7).8

Most of the songs have Jerusalem as a central focus of cele-

bration,9 and the themes of unity, brotherly love, family, and

prosperity of life were natural expressions of a worshiping pil-

grimage community.

 

FROM COMPOSITION TO COLLECTION

The final form of this collection of pilgrimage psalms is evi-

dently postexilic, since it includes a postexilic psalm (126, per-

haps also 125). Undoubtedly each song had a different context and

purpose in its initial composition. Genres include a song of Zion

(Ps. 122), wisdom psalms (127, 128, 133), a royal psalm (132),

thanksgiving psalms (124, 126), songs of trust (Ps. 121, 125, 131),

a praise liturgy (Ps. 134), and lament psalms (Ps. 120, 123, 129,

130).10 However, as the psalms were collected and sung by the

community in the context of pilgrimage, they took on new func-

tions in the liturgy and eventually were stabilized as an identifi-

able collection celebrating pilgrimage.

Liebreich argues convincingly that the 15 psalms in this sub-

collection were chosen to accord with the 15 words of the priestly

blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. Further, he observes that the four

key words used in the blessing (j~k;r,bAy;, j~r,m;w;yiv;, j~n,.Huyvi, and MOlwA) occur

throughout these psalms, which in fact were commentaries on

these words.11

Several interpreters have linked these psalms with King

Hezekiah and the 10 "degrees" the shadow receded in the court-

yard (2 Kings 20:10).12 The central psalm (Ps. 127) is attributed to

 

8   To define the songs as referring only to this event (i.e., "Songs of the Repatri-

ated") is too limiting. Further, some of the titles (e.g., 122:1; 124:1; 127:1; 131:1; 133:1)

contradict this notion.

9   Only Psalms 120, 127, and 130 do not have some kind of reference to Zion.

10   Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today

(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 242.

11   Leon J. Liebreich, "The Songs of Ascents and Priestly Blessing," Journal of Bib-

lical Literature 74 (1955): 33-36. Such intrabiblical development is becoming in-

creasingly recognized as a significant factor in the composition of the Scrip-

tures. Three of the psalms-124, 126, and 131--do not contain one of the key words.

Liebreich suggests that the original collection had only 12 psalms and that these

three were added to bring the number to 15 to accord with the number of words in

the blessing. Cf. Danna Nolan Fewell, ed., Reading between the Texts: Intertextual-

ity and the Hebrew Bible, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville:

Westminster/John Knox, 1992); and Udo J. Hebel, Intertextuality, Allusion, and

Quotation: An International Bibliography of Critical Studies (New York: Green-

wood, 1989).

12   The term tOlfEma occurs in 2 Kings 20:8-11 (cf. Isa. 38:8), which may connect these

psalms to this text and event.



166 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April- June 1995

 

Solomon, and on both sides of it the flanking seven psalms con-

tain two by David and five anonymous ones, which would have

been reappropriated or composed by Hezekiah (Isa. 38:20).13 This,

in turn, may be related to the 15 steps to the temple and the Jewish

tradition of the levitical practice of singing each song as they as-

cended the steps. 14

The collection evidently has been carefully structured so as to

create a progression. These psalms begin with a prayer of dis-

tress from one who is far from home (Ps. 120) and concludes with

a call to praise in the sanctuary of Zion (Ps. 134).15

 

PSALM 121 AS A PILGRIM PSALM

Psalm 121 speaks specifically of pilgrimage.16 It celebrates

Yahweh as the One who is the "help" (rz,f,) of the pilgrim on the

journey to home and Yahweh. Yahweh does not sleep. He protects

and guards along the way and watches over the pilgrim's life.

Further, with the prominence of the Exodus motif in the theology

of Israel, this psalm may well reflect the care and protection of

Yahweh in the wilderness journey to the Promised Land.17

Since the psalm can readily be seen as addressing the pil-

grimage of Israelites from their homes in the hills to Jerusalem,

it was included in the collection of pilgrim psalms. Further, the

pilgrims would readily identify with their forefathers in the

journey to the Promised Land, the place of the Lord's dwelling.

 

                               LITERARY OBSERVATIONS

 

STRUCTURE OF THE PSALM

The most significant and readily apparent observation re-

garding the structure of the psalm is the change of speaker be-

tween verses 1-2 and verses 3-8.18 Whether the psalm is a

 

13   See Keet's discussion of this view (A Study of the Psalms of Ascents, 10).

14   Middot 2:5; Sukka 5:4.

15   Other suggestions have been posited over the years. For surveys of these sug-

gestions see Keet, A Study of the Psalms of Ascents, 1-17, and Allen, Psalms 101-

150, 219-21.

16 Anthony R. Ceresko makes an interesting suggestion that the psalm was origi-

nally a prayer of a warrior (probably the king) who looked to God for help in his

battles in the hills ("Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" Biblica 70 [19891: 501-10).

17 The Exodus and the Conquest are prominent themes in the Old Testament, in-

cluding the hymnic material. Cf. Eugene H. Merrill, "Pilgrimage and Procession:

Motifs of Israel's Return," in Israel's Apostasy and Restoration, ed. Avraham

Gileadi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 261-72; and Erik Haglund, Historical Motifs

in the Psalms (Lund: Gleerup, 1984).

18 Most commentators observe this feature, including A. Kirkpatrick, The Book of

Psalms, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-



                                    "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121     167

 

"dialogue" within the pilgrim's inner self, or an antiphonal song

between pilgrims, or between a pilgrim and someone giving

blessing,19 there is clearly a shift from the first person to the third

person at verse 3. In various analyses, this observation is a con-

stant. Some differences of opinion, however, occur concerning

further structural refinements in verses 3-8.

Allen observes a three-stanza structure: an introductory stro-

phe of two lines (vv. 1-2) followed by two strophes of three lines

each (vv. 3-5 and 6-8). His observations revolve around (a) the

threefold occurrence of the participle of rmawA (vv. 3, 5) balanced by

the threefold occurrence of the imperfect of rmawA (vv. 7-8), (b) the oc-

currence of the divine name at or near the end of each strophe, (c)

the fivefold occurrence of the second masculine singular suffix

(j~, hKA) in both of the three-line strophes, and (d) the relationship of

positive and negative lines.20 Some have suggested a two-stanza

structure based on a cultic liturgy in which verses 1-4 present the

question and supplication of the congregation and verses 5-8

record the response of the priestly choir.21

VanGemeren observes a four-stanza structure moving in a

"stairlike" parallelism in the following fashion:

 

A.  Yahweh is the Creator (vv. 1-2)

       B.  Yahweh is the Guardian of Israel (vv. 3-4)

              C.  Yahweh is "Your" Guardian (vv. 5-6)

                     D.  Blessing (vv. 7-8).22

 

However, a two-stanza structure with identifiable subunits

seems to capture the literary structure of the psalm best. Coupled

with the change in speaker between verses 2 and 3 is the promi-

nence of second masculine pronominal suffixes in verses 3-8 (10

occurrences) compared with their complete absence in verses 1-2.

 

sity Press, 1906), 736; and Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, trans. J. R. Porter

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 290. Weiser suggests that in verse 2 the yriz;f,

is due to the "carelessness" of the copyist in repeating the word from the end of the

first line. Therefore the change in speakers takes place at verse 2, "Help comes

from Yahweh ..." (The Psalms, 744, 747). There is no textual support for this emen-

dation, and it makes good sense to retain this confident affirmation in verse 2 as

that of the pilgrim.

19   See discussion below, on pages 169-70.

20   Allen, Psalms 101-150, 153.

21   Weiser correctly observes that this interpretation fails because of the personal

character of the psalm, "which does not admit of a collective, cultic interpretation"

(The Psalms. 746).

22   Willem A. VanGemeren, "Psalms," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 12

vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:772.



168 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June  1995

 

Both these observations point to a definitive rhetorical shift be-

tween verses 2 and 3, which shift serves as the primary organiz-

ing factor in the psalm, yielding a basic two-stanza structure.

In further defining the structure of the second stanza, the six

occurrences of related terms built on the root rmw are significant.

As already noted, the first three are participles and the last three

are imperfects. However, the three imperfects are grouped in the

last two verses. This points to verses 7-8 as a final blessing for the

pilgrim in the future ("he will keep you/your life/your goings and

comings").

Positive and negative statements have also been carefully

used in crafting the second stanza. Verses 3-4 include two nega-

tive statements, verses 5-6 have one positive and one negative

statement, and verses 7-8 (the blessing) contain two positive

statements. The psalmist apparently moved progressively from a

negative statement through a transitional stanza to a final cli-

mactic and positive blessing.

While the psalm falls into a two-stanza structure, each of the

four two-line pairings have been tightly woven together through

anadiplosis, or staircase parallelism.23 In each case the last word

or phrase of one line is repeated or echoed at the beginning of the

next line: yriz;f,/yriz;f, (vv. 1-2), MUnyA-lxa/MUnyA-xlo (vv. 3-4), j~n,ymiy;/MmAOy

(vv. 5-6), j~w,p;na-tx, rmow;yi/j~x,ObU j~t;xce-yrmAw;yi hvAhy; (vv. 7-8).24 Thus the

entire song is carefully bound together internally.25

Superimposed over the entire psalm is an encompassing A-B-

A pattern. An inclusio is formed between verses 1-2 and verses 7-

8 with the use of related forms of xBA and Nmi. This inclusio focuses

on a centerpoint for the entire psalm in verse 5a:  j~r,m;wo hvAhy;

("Yahweh is your Keeper").26 Ceresko observes that 58 syllables

precede this phrase and 58 follow it.27 These two words in fact

convey the dominant theme of the psalm as evidenced by the five-

 

23   E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898; reprint, Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1968), 251.

24   W. G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques

(Sheffield: JSOT, 1986), 208-13. Also Ceresko ("Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 497)

and VanGemeren ("Psalms," 772) make this helpful observation.

25   Allen observes this feature but uses it to support a three-stanza structure in

that each stanza includes such parallelism (Psalms 101-150, 153).

26   A similar superimposing structure is in Psalm 113. The word "hallelujah"

brackets the psalm as an inclusio and verse 5 is the centerpoint of the psalm. But

the psalm follows the typical hymnic pattern of a call to praise (vv. 1-4), reasons for

praise (vv. 5-9a), and conclusion to praise (v. 9b).

27   Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 499. A similar device is found in

Ruth 1:1-5 and 4:13-17, in which units of 71 words bracket the book.



                             "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   169

 

fold repetition of hvAhy; (vv. 2, 5 [twice], 7, 8), the sixfold repetition of

forms of rmawA (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7 [twice], 8), and the tenfold repetition of

j~/hKA (vv. 3 [twice], 5 [thrice], 6, 7 [twice], 8 [twice]).

Thus the psalm seems to be built on a basic two-stanza struc-

ture, with the second stanza crafted into two significant move-

ments. The first of these movements revolves around the particip-

ial form of rmawA and speaks of assurance, and the second revolves

around the imperfect form of rmawA and speaks of blessing. The su-

perimposed inclusio and centerpoint structure helps set the theme

of the psalm.

 

THE SPEAKERS IN THE PSALM

The rhetorical break between verses 2 and 3 has given rise to

several understandings of who is speaking in the psalm. Mor-

genstern28 and others suggest that the dialogue is within the pil-

grim himself, and a single voice is being heard.29 Appeal is often

made to Psalms 42 and 43 for such a self-address. However, since

"my soul" (ywip;na) does not occur in Psalm 121, it is difficult to estab-

lish the parallel.

More commonly the psalm is interpreted as having two

speakers, that of the pilgrim in verses 1-2, and a second voice in

verses 3-8. This second voice is usually viewed as being that of a

priest or elder confirming or assuring the pilgrim in his opening

affirmation of faith.30 Understanding verses 7-8 as a concluding

blessing to the psalm, it seems that the psalm was a farewell

benediction either as the pilgrim left his village to make his

journey to Jerusalem, or perhaps as he left the temple to return to

his home and his daily routines.31 A variant of the two-speaker

understanding is to view the psalm as an antiphonal expression

of pilgrims traveling together in their caravans calling to one

 

28  Julian Morgenstern, "Psalm 121," Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939): 323-

71.

29  Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 498.

30  Cf. A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, New Century Bible (Greenwood, SC:

Attic, 1972), 851; A. Cohen, The Psalms, Soncino Books of the Bible (London: Son-

cino, 1945), 420; Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,

1975), 431; Leopold Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning (Staten Is-

land, NY: Alba, 1969), 108; and Weiser, The Psalms, 746.

31  Kraus argues that the psalm is a farewell cultic liturgy by a priest giving a

benediction to the departing pilgrims (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theologie des

Psalmen, Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirch-

ener Verlag, 19791, 1012). Others suggest that it may be an entrance liturgy between

priest and pilgrim (e.g., J. W. Rogerson and J. W. MacKay, Psalms 101-150, Cam-

bridge Bible for Schools and Colleges [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

19771, 115).



170 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April- June 1995

 

another with opening affirmations of faith and responses of con-

firmation and assurance.32

Whatever the original structure of speakers, apparently the

psalm came to be used in various settings and ways in the life

and faith of the worshiping Israelites. Certainly it could well

have been sung as a dialogue with oneself. Or it is not difficult to

imagine an elder in the village or a priest at the temple pronounc-

ing a benediction on the pilgrim as he was about to depart. And

one can readily see how the song could have been sung an-

tiphonally by pilgrims traveling to and from Jerusalem, includ-

ing pilgrims on their return from exile in Babylon.

 

                                        EXPOSITION

 

MESSAGE

The message of Psalm 121 may be summarized in this way:

The pilgrim on his journey to the dwelling place of God can have

great confidence that Yahweh, the Keeper of Israel, will be his

help and will keep him safe and secure because he trusts in Him.

 

EXPOSITORY OUTLINE

Title (v. la): A Psalm of Ascents (v. la).

 

I.     The pilgrim speaks: By question and answer he identified

       Yahweh as the source of his help (w. lb-2).

 

       A.   As he anticipated his journey through the mountains to

              Jerusalem, he asked who would be his help (v. lb).

 

       B.   He affirmed his faith in Yahweh, the Creator of heaven

             and earth, as his help (v. 2).

 

II.   The priest33 speaks: By describing Yahweh's watchfulness

       over the pilgrim, he affirmed the pilgrim's faith (vv. 3-8).

 

      A.   Assurance: He affirmed that Yahweh is unfailing in

             His watchfulness over His pilgrim (vv. 3-6).

 

            1.   He pointed to Yahweh as an unsleeping Shepherd,

                  who will not allow the pilgrim to slip on the rocky

                  paths (vv. 3-4).

 

32   Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 736.

33   This term is used for lack of a better generic one. The speaker is one who gives

a blessing to the departing pilgrim. There is a range of options for the identity of

this second voice.



                            "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   171

 

            2.   He pointed to Yahweh as an unfailing Protector, who

                  will stand in strength beside the pilgrim day and

                  night (vv. 5-6).

 

      B.   Blessing: He announced that Yahweh will continue to

             keep the pilgrim's life from all harm both now and in the

             future (vv. 7-8).34

 

EXPOSITION OF THE PSALM

I.   The pilgrim speaks: By question and answer he identified

     Yahweh as the source of his help (vv. lb-2).

     A.   As he anticipated his journey through the mountains to

Jerusalem, he asked who would be his help (v. 1b). As the pilgrim

contemplated his journey, he looked toward the route and final

destination with both trepidation and anticipation. He "lifts up

his eyes" (ynayfe xWa.x,), a phrase, which, when used with the preposi-

tion lx,, frequently indicates a looking and seeing with some

kind of anticipation of or disposition toward the object (cf. Gen.

39:7; Ps. 123:1; Ezek. 18:6, 12, 15; 33:25).35 In this case it is the

"hills" or "mountains" (MyrihA).

In the Old Testament, mountains were often considered

places of provision and protection (Gen. 19:17; Deut. 33:15) and of

renewal and hope (Isa. 55:12; Ezek. 34:13-14; Joel 3:18; Amos

9:13). However, they were also often viewed as places of loneli-

ness and abandonment (Judg. 11:37-38; 1 Kings 22:17; Lam.

4:19), the haunts of wild animals and birds (1 Sam. 26:20; 1

Chron. 12:8; Ezek. 39:4; Ps. 50:11; 76:4; 104:18; Song of Songs

4:8), the abode of false gods (Deut. 12:2; Hos. 4:13) and enemies

(Num. 23:7; Judg. 6:2), and a place where one could slip and fall

(Jer. 13:16). Metaphorically the term is used to speak of political

powers, both Israelite and Gentile (Ps. 68:16; Isa. 2:2, 14; Amos

6:1; Mic. 4:1). Frequently the mention of mountains brought to

mind God's power in His ability to control and tame these sym-

bols of strength, majesty, and danger (Deut. 32:22; Job 28:9; Isa.

41:15; 42:15; 64:3).36

In this psalm are two broad categories of understanding, one

positive, the other negative.37 From a positive point of view the

 

34  The separation of verses 7-8 from verses 3-6 reflects the attempt to take seri-

ously the movement from the participle to the imperfect of rmawA .

35  Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English

Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), 670.

36  S. Talmon, “rha,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 3:327-47.

37  For a summary of options see Allen, Psalms 100--150, 151.



172 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA /April-June 1995

 

hills or mountains have been interpreted as a reference to heav-

enly heights,38 a divine title for Yahweh similar to Yahweh's title

as "Rock" (rUc),39 and most commonly a reference to the moun-

tains of Jerusalem and the temple as a place of anticipation and

hope (cf. Ps. 87:1; 125:1-2; 133:3).40 From a negative perspective,

the hills have been interpreted as the source of danger and hard-

ship for the pilgrim in his journey,41 and/or a reference to the

sanctuaries of false gods found in the mountains.42

Ceresko has correctly noted images of Yahweh's care during

the pilgrimage: God does not let the pilgrim's foot slip (v. 3), and

He is there to guide and protect (v. 5), even from the harmful rays

of the sun and sinister light of the moon (v. 6). These indicate that

the psalmist intended the hills to be viewed as actual hills en-

countered in the journey and that the resting place of the final

journey was Jerusalem. Significantly the key term rmawA, used six

times in the psalm, was used by Joshua in recounting the Exo-

dus/wilderness journey (Josh. 24:17), a journey through hills to

the ultimate destiny of Canaan (cf. Num. 33:47-48). Ceresko

writes, "In singing this psalm, the pilgrims on the way to

Jerusalem and the `house,' of Yahweh would have had little diffi-

culty in imagining themselves as reliving the Exodus experi-

ence of their ancestors who also journeyed to God's `house,' i.e.,

the Promised Land."43

 

38  P. Voltz, "Zur Auslegung von Ps. 23 and 121," Neue kirchliehe Zeitschrift 36

(1925): 584; Otto Eissfeldt, "Psalm 121," in Stat crux, dum uoluitur orbis: H. Lilje

Festschrift, ed. G. Hoffmann and K. H. Rengstorf (Berlin: Lutherisches Ver-

lagshaus, 1959), 13.

39  Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970),

200.

40  Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 121; and C. A. and E. G. Briggs, A Critical

and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms, International Critical Com-

mentary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1907), 2:446. Related to this notion is the view

that MyrihA is a plural of majesty referring to the mountain, namely, Jerusalem (G.

Ravasi, Il libro dei salmi: Commento e attualizzazione I [1-50], Lettura pastorale

della Bibbia 12 [Bologna: 1981], 528, cited in Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a War-

rior?" 501).

41  Weiser, The Psalms, 746; Kraus, Theologie des Psalmen, 1013; and Anderson,

The Book of Psalms, 852.

42  Sigmund Mowinkel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship, trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas

(Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 129; cf. Weiser, The Psalms, 746; J. H. Eaton, Psalms, Torch

Bible Commentaries (London: SCM, 1967), 280; and E. A. Leslie, The Psalms

(Nashville: Abingdon, 1949), 215.

43  Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 508. He notes that tB, "house," is a

cipher for the Promised Land. He sees a transformation of the psalm from an early

usage rooted in the prayer of a warrior who knew well that Yahweh's protection

was closely associated with the hills and cliffs of the hill country. Hence the hills,

seen as a positive source of strength, influence its reading as a pilgrim psalm in a

positive way.



                     "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121     173

 

There is good reason to read the psalm as including both posi-

tive and negative aspects. As the pilgrim looked to the moun-

tains, he saw them as a place of both fear and hope. They contain

danger and yet salvation. They were the residence of bandits,

animals, and even pagan shrines, but they were also the resi-

dence of the temple and Yahweh.44

As he contemplated his journey, he asked, "From where does

my help come [yriz;f, xboyA Nyixame]?" Some have tried to interpret Nyixame as a

relative particle introducing the statement "from where my help

comes"45 (as in the KJV), thus affirming that the mountains are a

source of help. However, this is not an exegetical possibility. The

term is a compound of yxe, "where?"46 which clearly carries an in-

terrogative idea. The viewing of the hills with their potential for

danger (and hope) has raised the question as to the pilgrim's

source of help.

However, even when viewed as a question, this clause may be

taken as an indirect question, "I lift my eyes to the mountains, to

see from where my help comes."47 As Allen notes, "This exegesis

moves back to a point close to an earlier one which was grammat-

ically unfounded [relative particle] but perhaps instinctively not

distant from the truth."48 This supports the rather ambivalent in-

terpretation of MyrihA, and allows the singer to understand that look-

ing to the hills brought both hope and fear.

     B. He affirmed his faith in Yahweh, the Creator of heaven

and earth, as his help (v. 2). The answer to the pilgrim's question

in verse lb comes in a bold affirmation of faith. Repeating yriz;f,,49

 

44  VanGemeren writes, "Both thoughts may well have occupied the ancient trav-

eller: anxiety and anticipation" ("Psalms," 772).

45  Cf. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151.

46  Cf. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syn-

tax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 327. Morgenstern writes, "As is recog-

nized by all scholars, Nyxm can under no condition whatever be regarded as a relative

pronoun or a relative particle" ("Psalm 121," 312).

47  Cf. T. H. Weir, "Psalm 121:1," Expository Times 27 (1915/16): 90-91, Waltke and

O'Connor write that terms such as these are "locative in reference and strictly in-

terrogative in use, although they occur in both direct and indirect questions" (An

Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 327).

48  Allen, Psalms 101-150, 150.

49  The repetition of yriz;f, should not be viewed as dittography since the two words

begin and end separate poetic lines, and to remove either would make the line un-

intelligible. Some have suggested that, the first-person singular pronoun suffix

should be changed to a second masculine singular pronoun suffix, initiating the

voice of the second speaker in verse 2 rather than in 3. Others opt for dropping the

suffix altogether and make this statement a simple affirmation of a general truth

(see discussion in Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151). However, as Allen notes, since the

structural break occurs at the end of verse 2, the first-person singular suffix

should be retained and exegetically related to verse 1.



174 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995

 

the response comes in a nominal clause in which the pilgrim ex-

pressed his understanding that his help is from Yahweh. The

term rz,fe often refers to military assistance and is frequently used

of God's help in battle (1 Chron. 12:18; 2 Chron. 14:10; Isa. 50:7, 9;

63:5). However, in the Psalter the term is used of Yahweh's per-

sonal assistance for the underprivileged (Ps. 10:14; 72:12) and

for the psalmist when in sickness or distress (28:7; 86:17).50 This

latter usage is in view here.

The term Mfime, which expresses "origination or authorship,"51

repeats the Hebrew me (Nmi) from Nyixame in verse 1b, thus providing a

rhetorical as well as a semantic connection to the question just

asked. The emphasis here is an affirmation that the covenant

God, the One who redeemed Israel from Egypt and established

His covenant with her, is the God from whom help comes.

To complete his celebration the psalmist stated that this Yah-

weh is "the Maker of heaven and earth" (Cr,xAvA MymawA hWefo). Such a

description of Israel's God was a regular expression in her con-

fessions of faith (cf. Ps. 115:15; 134:3; 146:6) and spoke of Yah-

weh's power to help.

Because all things are God's handiwork, he has the power to help

whatever might happen; for even now all things are still in his

hand. The distinctive character of the Old Testament concept of

creation comes out clearly here. It ministers not to a theoretical

explanation of the universe but the mastering of a concrete situa-

tion in life in a practical way. It represents not a piece of knowl-

edge but a decision to submit oneself to God's creative will and

power.52

This statement forms the foundation for the statements of confi-

dence found in the rest of the psalm.

And so the pilgrim has spoken. He has asked and answered

the question of hope and fear with a conclusion of faith and a re-

ferral of life back to his covenant God and Creator. In his pil-

grimage of faith, autonomy and misguided dependence have

been ruled out, and full trust is placed in God.

 

II.   The priest speaks: By describing Yahweh's watchfulness

       over the pilgrim, he affirmed the pilgrim's faith (vv. 3-8).

      A new voice chimes in, and the rest of the song may be cast as

the expression of a priest or elder who speaks to the departing pil-

 

50  Carl Schultz, "rzafA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:660-61.

51  Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testa-

ment, 769 (italics theirs).

52  Weiser, The Psalms, 747. Cf. Norman C. Habel, "Yahweh, Maker of Heaven and

Earth: A Study in Tradition Criticism," Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972):

328-29.



                         "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   175

 

grim with confidence and assurance.53 The theme of these verses

is readily observed by noting the tenfold occurrence of the second

masculine singular (j~/hKA, vv. 3, 5, 6, 7, 8), the sixfold occurrence

of forms of the root rmw (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8), and the fourfold repetition

of hvAhy; (vv. 5, 7, 8), building off the pilgrim's affirmation in verse

2. By means of repetition the psalmist carefully crafted the priest's speech

around the dominant theme of the psalm, "Yahweh watches over you."

     A.     Assurance: He affirmed that Yahweh is unfailing in

His watchfulness over His pilgrim (vv. 3-6).54 The psalmist used

two closely related metaphors to describe Yahweh's watchfulness.

The first, that of a shepherd, stresses God's persistent watchful-

ness and care (vv. 3-4), and the second, that of a defender or

champion, speaks of His invincible protection (vv. 5-6).

The participles of rmawA in verses 3-5 are substantial and em-

phasize Yahweh's condition as Keeper.55 As Keeper, He protects

from falls over cliffs (v. 3), remains awake and alert (vv. 3-4),

and protects from danger (vv. 5-6).

     1.     He pointed to Yahweh as an unsleeping Shepherd who

will not allow the pilgrim to slip on the rocky paths (vv. 3-4).

Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth, is viewed in the intimate

and pastoral imagery of a shepherd who leads his sheep along

dangerous paths without allowing them to slip and who never

sleeps.

The poet used a steplike parallelism that increases in inten-

sity from verses 3 to 4 by the use of several rhetorical devices.

First, by using intensifying negatives, he moves from a twofold

usage of negative lxa in verse 3 to a twofold usage of the stronger

negative xlo in verse 4.56 This steplike intensification is

 

53  The question of the identity of the speaker has been discussed previously.

54  The identity of verses 3-6 as a literary unit separate from verses 7-8 based on

participial and imperfect forms of rmawA has already been noted.

55 See Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 614-15.

56  The particle lxa usually introduces a negative wish (Kautsch and Cowley, Gese-

nius' Hebrew Grammar, 321-22, par. 109c; and Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduc-

tion to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 567). Kirkpatrick (The Psalms, 737) and Weiser

(The Psalms, 744), retain this idea and render the line as a prayer, "May he not al-

low your foot to slip, may your Keeper not slumber," with verse 4 being the answer

to that prayer. Kirkpatrick even suggests that another voice speaks in verse 4 and

corrects the "wish" of verse 3 with a definitive xlo: "Nay, there is no need for such a

prayer, for Israel's keeper never sleeps." Such an interpretation is unnecessary

when it is understood that lxa  may be used as a straightforward negative expression

and expresses an intensification to verse 4 with the usage of xlo (Cohen, The

Psalms, 420; cf. Gesenius' Hebrew Granmniar, 317, par. 107o-p, 322, par. 109d; P.

Jouon, Granrnzaire de l'hebreu biblique, 2d ed. [Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute,

1923], 310, par. 114i, k; and Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical He-

brew Syntax, 567 n6).



176 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995

 

furthered by the repetition of MUnyA ("slumber") in both lines, first

with lxa and then with xlo. Second, he intensified the names of

God. In verse 3b he referred to God simply as "your Watcher"

(j~r,m;wo), but then in verse 4b as "the Watcher of Israel" (lxerAW;yi rmeOw).

Third, by the interjection "Behold/Indeed"57 at the beginning of

verse 4, he called attention to the unceasing vigil of the Keeper of

Israel. These verses could be rendered,

                He will not allow your foot to slip,

                         Your Keeper will not slumber.

                  Indeed, He will never slumber,

                          He will never sleep, the Keeper of Israel.58

Three times in these verses the pilgrim is assured of Yah-

weh's sleepless vigil. The words MUn (used twice) and NweyA, speak of

sleeping, and with the negative they may be used metaphorically

of watchfulness (cf. Isa. 5:27). Both are also used of the sleep of

death (for MUn see Ps. 76:5; Nah. 3:18; for NweyA, see Ps. 13:3; Dan.

12:2).59 Not only is the pilgrim's God awake and watchful; He is

also alive and well in contrast to Baal, who was taunted by Elijah

as being asleep (1 Kings 18:27).

The final phrase "the Keeper of Israel" (lxerAW;yi rmeOw)    is signifi-

cant. The priest mentioned the figure of a caring, careful shep-

herd; he also called on history ("the Keeper of Israel") to reinforce

the pilgrim's confidence. The pilgrim understood that God's care

for His people extends into the present, and "the national tradition

of Heilsgeschichte becomes a paradigm of the pilgrim's personal

experience and trust."60 The Shepherd of the covenant people is the

Shepherd of the covenant person.

     2.     He pointed to Yahweh as an unfailing Protector who will

stand in strength beside the pilgrim day and night (vv. 5-6). The

second metaphor points to Yahweh as protector or guardian. He is

described as the pilgrim's "shade" (lce) on his right hand. The

term lce can be used both positively as "protection," "shade," or

"defense" (cf. Gen. 19:8; Num. 14:9; Job 7:2; Isa. 30:2-3) or nega-

tively to speak of what is ephemeral or passing (e.g., man's life, 1

 

57  See Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Charles

Scribner's Sons, 1971), 168-71, for a. discussion of the syntactical usage of hne.hi.

58  Morgenstern sees verse 4 as an intrusive marginal comment that makes a na-

tionalistic comment on the suffix of j~r,m;wo ("Psalm 121," 319). This suggested emen-

dation has no textual support.

59 R. Laird Harris, "MUn" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:563;

John E. Hartley, "NweyA" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:414; and J.

Schupphaus, "NweyA" in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 6:438-41.

60 Weiser, The Psalms, 748; also see Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and

Meaning, 108.



                              "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   177

 

Chron. 29:15, or a sick or sorrowing person, Job. 17:7).61 In this

case the psalmist described Yahweh in the positive sense as a

source of protection and care (cf. Ps. 91:1; Jer. 48:45; Lam. 4:20).

Such protection is said to be on the pilgrim's "right hand"

(j~n,ymiy; dya-lfa). This is a common biblical metaphor that speaks of

both favor and strength (cf. Gen. 48:13-14). Often Scripture

speaks of the "right hand of Yahweh" to describe the power of

Yahweh in delivering His people (e.g., Ps. 18:35; 98:1; Isa.

41:13) as well as His favor and blessing (Ps. 16:11; Matt. 26:64;

Acts 2:33-35). In this case, however, Yahweh is said to be the shade

or protection on the pilgrim's right hand (cf. Ps. 16:8). This was

the place of one's champion or savior. The psalmist declared,

"For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him" (Ps.

109:31; cf. 108:6). The pilgrim was fully assured that Yahweh, as

protector and shade (a figure chosen in view of the dangers of pil-

grimage in the blazing sun), would stand by him as a champion

or hero in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The specifics are elaborated on in verse 6, which has been

chiastically crafted to focus on the promise of protection:

 

      By day,

            the sun

                  will not harm you,

            or the moon,

      by night.

 

The pilgrim is promised protection. from the effects of the

blazing heat of the sun (cf. 2 Kings 4:19)62 by day,63 and the sinis-

ter fears of the moon by night. From ancient times the moon has

been viewed as dangerous and ominous, the source of disease and

"lunacy" (cf. selhnia<zomai, "moonstruck," Matt. 4:24; 17:15).64

While the Hebrew pilgrim may well have known from his un-

derstanding of God and the world that such a danger does not ac-

tually exist, it is easy to understand how popular lore and super-

stition would invade and dominate in spite of theological under-

 

61  John E. Hartley, “llacA,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:767.

62  Commentators regularly refer to the danger of sunstroke in the Mediterranean

climate (e.g., Cohen, The Psalms, 421; Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 738; and

Weiser, The Psalms, 749).

63  See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English. Lexicon of the Old Tes-

tament, 401, for this translation of MmAOy.

64  Dahood writes, "The notion that the moon beamed harmful influences was      

widespread in the ancient Near East" (Psalms III, 202; cf. Anderson, The Book of

Psalms, 853; and R. Clements, "HreyA," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testa-

ment, 6:357). On the use of the New Testament term see J. M. Ross, "Epileptic or

Moonstruck," Biblical Theology 29 (1978): 126-28.



178 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995

 

standings to the contrary. The psalm realistically addresses the

mind-set of the pilgrim in his perceptions of dangers and fears.65

            The pilgrim was told that the sun or moon "will not harm"

(hKAK,ya-xlo) him. The term hkAnA, meaning "smite, strike, hit, beat,

slay, kill,"66 carries the metaphor of shade and defense (v. 5) to

its ultimate statement. The pilgrim could rest assured of

Yahweh's unfailing protection from the oppression and sinister

elements that would confront him along the way.

The use of the merism67 "sun by day" and "moon by night"

assures the pilgrim that Yahweh will protect at all times, day or

night. Further, it encourages the pilgrim in the knowledge that

Yahweh wants him to entrust all to His loving care day or night.

     B.     Blessing: Yahweh will continue to watch over the pil-

grim's life now and in the future (vv. 7-8). These two final

verses, while part of the speech of the priest, stand apart from

verses 3-6 as marked by a change from a substantival participial

form of the key thematic term rmawA to an imperfect form.68 The de-

scription of Yahweh as "Watcher/Keeper" now moves to an em-

phasis on the action of "watching" or "keeping."69 This serves to

identify a change in the compositional structure of the psalm,

which moves from affirmation (vv. 3-6) to benediction (vv. 7-8).

The emphasis of these last two lines is that Yahweh will ac-

tively keep or watch over His pilgrim in all circumstances, both

now and in the future. Emphasis is created by the active verbal

use of rmow;yi, as well as by the occurrence of the name of Yahweh

(hvAhy;) at the beginning of each line.70

 

65  VanGemeren sees only a general reference to the dangers of day and night as

represented by the sun and moon ("Psalms," 773). However, there seems to be more

here in reference to the superstitions and popular fears of the people of the day.

One wonders how many of God's people today still pause to pick up a four-leaf

clover or feel a twinge of anxiety when a black cat crosses the road ahead of them.

66  Marvin R. Wilson, hkAnA in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:577.

67  Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 435. The observation that a

merism is used here does riot preclude the more sinister interpretation of the role

or effect of the moon.

68  See discussion on page 175.

69  Cf. Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 496-518,

613-15.

70  In normal Hebrew prose, the subject follows the verb. Displacement occurs be-

cause of emphasis and/or poetic artistry (C. L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical He-

brew [Nashville: Abingdon, 1987], 94-95; and Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax:

An Outline, 2d ed. [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976], 96-99). It is evident

that in this case the psalmist sought to emphasize Yahweh's activity of keeping and

watching. The Qumran scroll omits the second hvAhy; (J. A. Sanders, The Dead Sea

Psalms Scroll [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 19671, 38-39).



                        "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   179

 

The pilgrim was assured that Yahweh would keep him from

all evil or harm (fra). The term fra conveys both moral (cf. Ps.

41:5; 73:8; 109:20; Mic. 2:1; 7:3; Mal. 1:8) and amoral notions

(Isa. 45:7; Jer. 39:12; Amos 6:3).71 In light of the context of pil-

grimage and concern for well-being on the journey, the amoral

rendering "calamity," "disaster," or "harm" is the better way to

interpret the term here.72 The pilgrim was confident that no harm

or disaster is outside the control and care of God. Cohen observes

that the "all" (lKA) points to the totality and comprehensiveness of

God's protection. "Life exposes man to a great variety of mishaps,

but none are beyond God's sheltering care."73

Further, the psalmist announced that Yahweh will keep the

pilgrim's "life" (wp,n,) from all harm. The word wp,n, is widely rec-

ognized as referring to much more than "soul."74 Rooted in the

notions of "breathing," "appetite," or "craving" (Exod. 15:9; Deut.

23:24; Isa. 56:11),75 the term carries the primary meaning of

"life." But as Waltke observes, it denotes "the living self with all

its drives, not the abstract notion ‘life’ which is conveyed by

hayyim, nor the other meaning of hayyim which refers to a qual-

ity of existence as well as the temporal notion of being."76 Waltke

develops Westermann's observation that when wP,n, occurs as the

subject of a verb it is usually rendered "`soul" (i.e., desires, incli-

nations), but when it is the object of a verb it is usually rendered

"life," that is, "the state of personal existence over against

death."77 The occurrence here is as the direct object of rmow;yi and the

psalmist is expressing confidence that the pilgrim's "personal

existence" will be kept by Yahweh.

 

71  G. Herbert Livingston, “ffarA,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,

2:854-56; cf. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, 853.

72  See NIV; Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-151: A

Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 426; and H.

C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 869. The KJV,

NEB, NKJV, and RSV retain the moral option by translating "evil."

73  Cohen, The Psalms, 421.

74  Cf. C. A. Briggs, "The Use of npsh in the Old Testament," Journal of Biblical

Literature, 16 (1897): 17-30; E. Jacob, yuxh<, in Theological Dictionary of the New

Testament, 9:617-37; and Bruce K. Waltke, "wpanA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old

Testament, 2:587-91.

75  D. Winton Thomas, "A Study in Hebrew Synonyms: Verbs Signifying `To

Breathe,' " Zeitschrift fur Semitistik and Verwandte Gebiete 10 (1935): 311-14; cf.

Waltke, “wpanA,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:587-91.

76  Waltke, "wpanA," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:589-99.

77  Ibid; cf. Claus Westermann, "wp,n,," in Theologisches Handbuch zum Alten Tes-

tament, 1:71-95.



180 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995

 

Such care is circumscribed in the final line of the psalm. The

pilgrim's "going out and coming in" (j~x,ObU j~t;xce) are under the

watchful eye of Yahweh. This phrase is used elsewhere of going

and coming from town to field for work (Deut. 28:6; 31:2), of car-

rying out duties as a military leader (Josh. 14:11) and as a king

(1 Kings 3:7), and the comings and goings of life in general (2

Kings 19:27; cf. Isa. 37:28). So while the pilgrim was assured by

another merism of God's watchfulness over his pilgrimage from

beginning to end, there is an overtone to this phrase that includes

all of life and its affairs and undertakings.78 God's watchfulness

extends to the daily routines of work and worship in the life of the

pilgrim of faith.

Lastly, the pilgrim heard the assuring words that God's care

extends not just to all places and settings of life, but also to all

time, "from now until forever" (MlAOf-dfav; hTAfame).79 Pious Jews to-

day, as they leave or enter their house or a room in the house, touch

the mezuzah, a small metal cylinder that is placed on the right

hand door post and that contains a piece of parchment inscribed

with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and they recite Psalm

121:8.80 God is Keeper, everywhere, now and forever. Such is the

widest possible vista for God's constant help for the pilgrim of

faith.

 

                                        CONCLUSION

 

In this beautiful psalm of trust the people of God are encour-

aged to trust Him in the pilgrimages of life. The problem arises

when reality confronts poetic call. Does this psalm guarantee un-

conditional protection from all harm and danger to the pilgrim?

Did believers never suffer from sunstroke or fall into the hands

of bandits? It is apparent that while the psalm speaks of such

blanket protection, the pilgrim must understand that everything

that invades his or her life is under God's watchful care and prov-

idence. The spirit of the psalm is to evoke trust in Yahweh, the

Keeper of the pilgrim, and the Keeper of Israel, the Maker of

heaven and earth. Often things that happen in the life of the pil-

grim would not be his or her choice. But the psalm is not pointing

 

78  Cohen, The Psalms, 121.

79  On MlAOf as "long duration, antiquity, futurity," see Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A

Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 761. Cf. Allan A. McCrae, “Mlf,"

in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:672-73.

80  Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, "Mezuzah," in Encyclopedia Judaica, 11:1474-75;

Nathan Ausubel, "Mezuzah," in The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 290-91; and Kirk-

patrick, The Book of Psalms, 738.



                    "The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121   181

 

in this direction.81 The direction is upward, toward God. The be-

liever must recognize that life is a gift from God, the Giver of life.

The pilgrim can rest confidently, knowing that God's glory will

prevail, and that justice (FPAw;mi) and righteousness (hqAdAc;) will ul-

timately rule.82

            The confidence expressed in Psalm 121 is rooted in the

grandeur of the psalmist's vision of God. He is the Maker of

heaven and earth; He is the Keeper of Israel. In spite of the perils

of one's pilgrimage, the believer can exercise trust in the Lord.

God is neither too great to care, nor are God's people too insignifi-

cant to be noticed. This quiet psalm reflects on God who quells the

anxiety of the pilgrim's heart, who watches over him or her with a

shepherd's gentleness and a guardian's vigilance, and who gives 

thoughtful benediction to one's daily routines.

 

 

 

81  Psalms of trust must be held in tension with psalms of lament-psalms that

speak of the pain, grief, and suffering found in the pilgrimage. However, even

lament psalms include an expression of praise and trust as the concluding note.

Anderson (Out of the Depths, 76) and Roland E. Murphy (The Psalms, Job, Procla-

mation Commentaries [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19771, 16-17) make the impor-

tant distinction between "lamentation," which is an expression of grief over the ir-

reversible, and "lament," which is an appeal for intervention by a compassionate

God.

82  This is a crucial point in the exposition of the psalm. Otherwise it becomes

nothing more than pious sentiment. The psalm must remain essentially theocen-

tric and doxological, and one must resist the tendency to move it into anthropocen-

tric domains. Some helpful treatments of the subject of theodicy include D. A. Car-

son, How Long, 0 Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); Alister E. McGrath, Suffer-

ing and God: Why Me? Why Doesn't God Do Something? Does God Care? (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Macmillan,

1962); and idem, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1961). The terms "justice" and

"righteousness" used here are rooted in the prophetic utterances of the moral and 

ethical nature of the messianic kingdom (cf. Isa. 11:4; 28:17; 42:1-9).

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

            www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu

            Thanks to Alicia Davidson for help with proofing.